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What common Japanese words underwent metathesis (transposition of sounds)?


新{あたら}しい < あらたしい
秋葉原 {あきはばら} < あきばはら

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From one of my questions: しだらない -> だらしない –  Lukman Sep 26 '11 at 13:47
does タネ to ネタ count? –  Flaw Sep 26 '11 at 15:24
うまい -> まいう! :-) –  Axioplase Sep 27 '11 at 2:23
You guys should be putting these in as answers, not comments!(Well, maybe except まいう ;) –  Matt Sep 27 '11 at 4:04
Adding one to the "joke" answers: ごめん → めんご –  Hyperworm Sep 27 '11 at 12:36

1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I hate to turn these questions into the sawa and Matt show, but here are a couple of interesting ones that are still "in progress":

  • 雰囲気 = ふんいき → ふいんき

Dictionaries still list the pronunciation as "ふんいき", although some will give "ふいんき" as an alternate version, but spoken Japanese is clearly moving towards ふいんき. According to 日本国語大辞典, Yamaguchi Nakami reported on an [undated, but pre-2007] survey finding that 70% of students in the Kansai area used "ふいんき" instead of "ふんいき".

Nevertheless, it remains a shibboleth: people who know that it is originally ふんいき feel entitled to laugh at those who don't. For example, someone on 2ch once said "ふいんき(←なぜか変換できない)", or "ふいんき (← for some reason my IME software won't recognize this)", not realizing that their IME software did not recognize it because ふんいき is still the dictionary standard. Everyone found this most amusing and it is a well-known quote now.

Another interesting thing about 雰囲気 is that you might have expected ふんにき to appear as the alternate pronunciation instead, along the lines of しんのう for 親王 and so on. This may be because ふんいき is a relatively new word, coined during the late Edo period (1800s) to translate the scientific concept of "atmosphere" [hence the 囲, "surround"], only expanding to the metaphorical meaning during the Meiji period. (This info too courtesy of 日本国語大辞典.) The process that made しんのう out of 親王 might have already become non-productive by then, in which case metathesis would be another good way of dealing with the awkward んい combination.

  • simulation = シミュレーション → シュミレーション

I am not sure whether this is as widespread as ふいんき, but it is not uncommon in native-speaker idiolects, even those of highly educated people. However, one thing about シミュレーション/シュミレーション is that unlike 雰囲気, it is a phonetic loan rather than a translated word. This means that as long as we English speakers keep saying "simulation", Japanese language authorities can point to us and say "See? シュミレーション is objectively wrong."

(By contrast, for 雰囲気 the authorities can only point to the past, in which case we can ask why they use です instead of なり and so on. Of course, the counterargument to English-as-objective-truth is that once シミュレーション becomes a Japanese word, it is perfectly "entitled" to change into シュミレーション just as English "hari-kiri" evolved from 腹切り to suit the phonemic whims of English speakers.)

As for why the change occurred, this also interests me. Nothing about シミュレ seems as "hard to pronounce" as んい, but there are still phonemic pressures at work:

  • みゅ is an uncommon sound in Japanese. It appears only in loanwords, and in most of those it is lengthened: ミュージック, アミューズメント, etc. The unlengthened ミュ is rare indeed (although not unheard of)
  • Thus, the combination みれ as far more common in Japanese than みゅれ
  • しゅ is also very common in Japanese -- and the fact that し can combine with a small ゅ at all should not be overlooked; it explains why we get シュミレーション but not *コュミニズム
  • The combination しゅみ is homophonous (pace tones) as the pronunciation for 趣味, a common word that all Japanese speakers are familiar with

Also, this is pure speculation, but some speakers may be unintentionally or intentionally blending 趣味 and シミュレーション for semantic reasons. The two do have distinct meanings, but if you consider a formulation like "something that is done in place of actual work/performance", you can see how an overlap is conceivable.

Wikipedia lists a couple more, including disputed ones (e.g. いちじく, the etymology of which is not settled but which might involve metathesis).

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Thanks for the answer. I didn't know that some people pronounce ふいんき. To me, シュミレーション is standard, and シミュレーション is for people who are particularly familiar with that stuff. It's also a good example. I never write 趣味レーション though. :) –  user458 Sep 27 '11 at 1:37
There is nothing correct about ふいんき. It's simply people being lazy. I'm not saying it's not widespread, but that doesn't make it correct. Just like "irregardless" in English (not a metathesis, just a correlation). –  istrasci Sep 27 '11 at 2:27
@istraci I understand your position, sure. If you want to argue that ふいんき is wrong because the 常用漢字表 lists "雰囲気" as a "例" for the reading "フン" for "雰", then I'll agree: according to the prescriptions of the 常用漢字表, ふいんき is incorrect. But living languages don't obey official dictates (not even French!). Time will tell whether "ふいんき" is a generational fad or genuine language change in progress, and moral judgments like "lazy" are irrelevant -- unless you also want to declare all Japanese speakers shameless idlers for saying "omotte" instead of "omopite", and "Tōkyō" instead of "Toukyau". –  Matt Sep 27 '11 at 2:56
Calling あらたしい -> あたらしい "metathesis" but ふんいき -> ふいんき "lazy" is just a cognitive bias for ones current point in history. As if all the changes that have happened now are justified simply because they happened, and the changes happening now are wrong because they haven't completed. Personally, I always say ふいんき because that's how I hard it from Japanese people, and it somehow rolls off the tongue easier. The question isn't whether or not this kind of change is right or wrong, but whether or not current record keeping technologies make this kind of shift harder. –  Questioner Sep 27 '11 at 3:56
The last part of this blog entry (in Japanese) explains how the mechanism of ふんいき→ふいんき is different from さんざか→さざんか (or あらたしい→あたらしい). –  Tsuyoshi Ito Dec 30 '11 at 2:56

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